Since I opened the New England-inspired Puritan & Company brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2012, we’ve found great success, earning multiple awards and a great reputation within our community.
But I had a desire to test out a more global menu, takeout-friendly dishes, and online ordering, without having to open an entirely new restaurant. That’s when the idea struct to open Puritan Trading Company, a ghost restaurant, came to be.
A ghost restaurant is a “restaurant” that people can’t actually physically visit. For us, it involves using our existing space, kitchen equipment, and staffing to execute a menu that’s not served in our normal restaurant. Customers place their orders and we deliver.
Puritan Trading Company has allowed us to be creative, reach a different market that maybe a New England-themed restaurant in Massachusetts wouldn’t normally reach, like people looking for dumplings or pan-fried udon noodles. It also created a platform by which we could market to a sector of people who might not be willing to come in and pay the money it would take to have a full meal in our restaurant.
The idea all stemmed from a conversation I was having with a few industry friends of mine. They were talking about how there’s a growing trend in large cities like New York, Chicago and London for tech firms to data mine to see who was ordering what in each particular area, then build standalone kitchens for underserved concepts. I knew that food on-demand sector of restaurants was growing quickly, but our restaurant and the food that we offer didn’t fit that model, so we had to think of something that could bridge that gap.
Then came winter. That really pushed this idea over the starting line. The wintertime is just so nasty that people don’t want to leave their houses. We were sitting around in the middle of January, and it was just one of those days when it was zero degrees and no one was walking in from the street. I thought, “If only we could figure out a way to get our food to people without them having to leave their house.”
We were able to get started with only a few changes: adding a few more pieces of equipment, adding another staff member, and really just fundamentally changing the way that our staff approached an evening of service. With restaurant guests coming into a restaurant like ours, we have them sit down, we have a server take an order, we have bread brought to the table, a drink order put in, a food order put in–that whole process could take 45 minutes, start to finish, or even two hours if the guest orders a tasting menu.
With this new avenue of marketing and distributing food through the ghost restaurant, a ticket is printed in the kitchen the moment the person places an order online. We have 15 minutes to make it, put it into packaging, and have it ready for a driver to pick up. Really, I think the biggest shift for us was in how much time we have from the moment the guest wants the food to the moment the guest eats the food.
The first two weeks that we were in operation, I was convinced I was a genius. We were doing sales numbers that were rivaling what we were doing in the restaurant. After that, it sort of plateaued, which is what any new restaurant experiences. We had that honeymoon period at the beginning, but when we began to level out, it was actually great because we got to our original plan, which was to fill the gap when we were slow in the restaurant.
There have been a few challenges. Staff training is the hardest part because we try to make sure that this doesn’t impact what we do on our day-to-day. We love our restaurant, we love our guests, and we love the hospitality that we offer. I told my staff, “If this starts to impact that, then we’ll change it.” So far, the demand that we have for Puritan Trading Company and the number of guests that we’re serving at Puritan & Company is a pretty happy balance.
It’s been very interesting to see that oftentimes, Puritan Trading Company customers are people who already come to the restaurant, and they want to try something different because they know us, they trust us, and they like us. But sometimes it could just be a group of people working in a technology office a mile down the street from us who are just looking to try something new.
“Puritan Trading Company has been a chance for us to create something completely independent. We can test out concepts without having to build out a whole restaurant space and hire an entire staff.” -Will Gilson
One of our biggest hurdles with getting food to people from Puritan Trading Company is that currently we’re only keeping it open during the times we are doing dinner service at Puritan & Company, Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 10 pm. We’re not doing it on weekends, when we’re incredibly busy at the restaurant. Getting into the economics of supply and demand, I don’t know whether a lack of supply creates more demand, or whether trying to create so much supply will lead to less demand. We don’t quite know where we’re at with that yet.
But two-and-a-half months in, we’re happy with where it’s going. We’ve even started migrating some of our Puritan & Company dishes over to the online ordering menu to give more options to those customers. We want to see this develop more and reach more people. Plus, it’s a great way for our business to diversify.
Puritan Trading Company has been a chance for us to create something completely independent. We can test out concepts without having to build out a whole restaurant space and hire an entire staff.
For me, personally, as a chef, I’ve always had this create-now-figure-it-out-later mentality. I come from a background of pop-up restaurants and spending as little money as possible to get the research. For me, this is almost like R&D, where we can test out a concept, and if it doesn’t work, we can turn it into something completely different by still using the same channels. If that happens, we’re not really out anything but time.
But I’d love for it to grow. We wanted to make sure that we first insulated our existing, established and respected brand so we didn’t tarnish it by chasing dragons. I think the future of Puritan Trading Company is to serve as a platform from which we test new dishes so we can deliver even more to the folks who already know and trust us, and attract new customers who hopefully will feel the same after their first bite.